30 August 2007

Free speech, Sydney etc

Today's Australian Media section has some good stories, including

# Reports of speeches given at a free speech conference dinner by Geoffrey Robertson and Irene Moss, with additional comments by Chris Merritt, the paper's legal writer.

# "Loose lips sink a few reputations", Tony Barrass"'s survey of the now discredited story, published on the front pages of the Saturday editions of The West Australian, The SMH and The Age
and featured on the Channel 7 News, claiming that the wreck of HMAS Sydney had been found.

The reporting of the "discovery" of the Sydney cuts to the heart of what we do and how we go about our business.

On Saturday, August 11, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian - with a combined Saturday readership of more than three million - made a cold statement of fact on their front pages. The SMH declared "We found HMAS Sydney", while The Age ran a picture of the ship next to the headline: "Back from the deep".

This "exclusive" story was written by the respected West Australian journalist Paul Murray, whose reputation as a fiery, clever editor of The West Australian during the 1990s gave the story weight and gravitas. With a long-standing copy-sharing agreement between the West and Fairfax stable in place, here was an old-fashioned scoop, a gimme for a page-one splash in the week's biggest circulating paper.

A team of amateur historians, the story said, led by father and son Phil and Graham Shepherd, and assisted by master diver Ian Stiles, had "almost certainly" found the HMAS Sydney, the West said. But there was nothing almost about the banner headline that screamed: FOUND.

On Saturday night and throughout Sunday, Kerry Stokes's Channel 7, now in constant cross-promotion as the biggest shareholder in West Australian Newspapers after recently increasing his shareholding to more than 17 per cent of the money-making machine, backed up the print claims by running "exclusive pictures" of the Sydney from a camera dropped to the murky depths off Dirk Hartog Island in WA's Shark Bay region, about 1000km north of Perth. Viewers were treated to clear underwater footage of the wreck and to any interested observer - and there were many that day - it seemed the long-lost ship had indeed been found.

The timing couldn't have been better for the Perth newspaper, which after years of meticulous planning and new $100-million presses, had picked August 11 as the launch date for its new Saturday lifestyle magazine.

Lucrative advertisers had come on board and they had a page-one splash of warship proportions to propel the new product into the circulation stratosphere.

Editorial heavies at the SMH and The Age were just as excited when they became aware of the story on Friday. The Age's defence correspondent Brendan Nicholson, who spent many years in the west, quickly punched out a backgrounder to complement the splash, while the SMH used a reverse white-on-black page one for added impact, boldly declaring: "We found HMAS Sydney".

The Australian understands SMH editor Alan Oakley and The Age's editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan agreed to pay $20,000 a piece into a syndicate organised by West editor Paul Armstrong to get first rights to the pictures coming out of Shark Bay. Like Jaspan, Armstrong cut his teeth in the high-octane Fleet Street environment and loves nothing better than a war story.

His office is decorated with a picture of war planes, while a poster of a cigar-munching Churchill toting a machine gun used to distract visitors and reporters. The Sydney yarn had it all.

With Seven, The Age, SMH and The West signed up, the kitty was up to $80,000. That money, once expenses were

taken out to send two news crews - one print, one TV - to remote Dirk Hartog, would be then donated to the SAS Trust, the parties were told.

It wasn't the only money Stokes had put into the expedition. A patriotic war buff known for his generosity - last year he paid $1 million for Alfred Shout's Victoria Cross won at Gallipoli and then handed it to the Australian War Memorial - Stokes threw in at least $50,000 so a remotely operated mini-submarine could be brought down from Singapore to help the searchers film the wreck.

The reaction of the find on the Saturday swung from disbelief to euphoria. Glenys McDonald, regarded by most as an expert on the Sydney, told Perth's Sunday Times she was staggered. Phil Shepherd, one of the searchers, had called her the day before and told her the wreck "couldn't be anything else". She warned him about going public before any find had been confirmed. That advice was ignored.

Relatives of the 645 sailors, most of them elderly, were interviewed on all television channels, and all said the same thing; they hoped the final chapter in the nation's worst maritime disaster was coming to an end.

West Australia's leading maritime archeologist Dr Mike McCarthy, along with Veteran's Affairs Minister Bruce Billson, spoke with cautious optimism when asked to comment. "If this turns out to be the Sydney then this will be an absolutely wonderful outcome," Billson gushed.

But it didn't take long before the gunwales began to fall off. To add to suspicions, the report mysteriously vanished from Fairfax and West websites.

On Sunday, as The Australian and other media organisations continued asking questions, more doubts bubbled to the surface. Dr McCarthy, having realised the find he was commenting on the previous day was in fact the same one he had ruled out on several occasions before as director of maritime archeology at the WA Museum, then raised serious doubts. He is a world leader in the field.

Salvage experts bought into the debate and agreed. And when locals told reporters that the search area off the remote island had been a dumping ground for trawlers and barges not worthy of repair, the story was in tatters.

Other simple facts should have blown ship's whistles: the Sydney was 170m long, yet this wreck was about 30m in length and just 8-9m wide. It was in just 130m of water. Every conflicting voice in the search for the Sydney - and there are many - agree on one thing; it lies in deep water, possibly 3000m or more.

On Monday, after splashing with one of the biggest stories in years, not one word on the subject appeared in the West or The Age.

The SMH carried two reports on page two, an interview with a nephew of a missing Sydney sailor and a piece from Britain's The Daily Telegraph on a survivor of the Kormoran, the ship that engaged the Sydney.

On Tuesday, the West was again silent, but the SMH ran a small piece suggesting the navy would work to "try to verify" claims the wreck was the Sydney. A small editorial suggested the find could actually be the Kormoran and acknowledged - in complete contradiction to its Saturday headline - that "it will be some time before the

find can be confirmed or discounted".

It wasn't until Wednesday - four days after the Saturday splash - that the Sydney got a mention in Perth's daily paper: in a meek interview with an old sea dog in Geraldton, 450km north of Perth, who was cranky about the "knockers" of the search team.

In WA, talkback radio was being inundated by people desperate for more information on the discovery. ABC Perth morning presenter Geoff Hutchison tracked down Graham Shepherd by satellite phone. Shepherd was angry that he had been called un-Australian by Mr Billson (he hadn't) but acknowledged that the find was "more than likely" not the Sydney.

To add to Shepherd's woes, the equipment brought down from Singapore - paid for by Stokes - was not properly working. Incessant winds and bumpy seas continued to hamper the search site, while morale among the 14 or so men - including the two news crews - crammed aboard the search vessel was sinking as each day passed.

Steaming towards them was the HMAS Leeuwin, the navy's hydrographic survey ship. Minister Billson had no option but to divert the ship from Darwin to investigate what he called a matter of national importance.

Mr Billson claimed he asked four times for the co-ordinates from Mr Shepherd during a personal phone call. The searchers refused, saying they were bound by confidentiality agreements they had signed with the media organisations.

The co-ordinates - long and lat south 25.46-359 east 112.36-736 - were given to Billson's office by The Australian, which obtained them from the Shire of Shark Bay. The council had sent The West Australian a complaining letter about their previous Saturday's coverage. That letter has yet to be published.

Not surprisingly, it took the navy's sophisticated sonar equipment a matter of hours to rule out the lump on the bottom of the Indian Ocean as the Sydney. The Leeuwin swept two other areas before heading back to normal duties.

By Friday, the biggest story out of the west in a decade was, just like the last sighting of the Sydney, down in the bow, on fire and limping into the sunset.

And Armstrong, having realised all hope of salvage was lost, began blasting away in Saturday's editorial.

Blaming the "foreign-owned Murdoch press" and the "increasingly irrelevant ABC" for the failure of the search, the editorial said it was a travesty to the memory of the 645 men who perished that the searchers had been besmirched and reviled. He attacked Billson for showing "sudden interest" in the hunt, wasting taxpayers' funds by sending the Leeuwin to Shark Bay and suggested that the "reaction of rival media organisations which missed the story when it broke was utterly predictable".

Story? What story? And why the outrage? Didn't the West expect the navy to investigate such a momentous claim? And why didn't anyone make one phone call to any maritime historian or expert - WA's rich nautical history makes it the home of some of the world's leading maritime archeologists - to verify the claim? As it transpired, almost everyone in Shark Bay knew it was a dud.

The Age and the SMH have yet to run a correction or an apology.

Armstrong refused to talk to The Australian, but he did in his own unique way at least have the gumption to tell his readers that the wreck was not that of the Sydney, albeit a week later in a editorial rant laden with hubris and arrogance.

But don't hold your breath waiting for two of the nation's most respected mastheads to do as much.

Last night, Fairfax spokesman Bruce Wolpe told Media: "The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have a longstanding copy provision agreement with The West Australian, and on the basis of that relationship, we accepted the story for publication. Both papers followed developments during the week leading to the confirmation that this was not the HMAS Sydney.

"When we are ready to report further to our readers on this story, we will."

Australian distances itself from government

Today's Australian editorial "Bored of comfort: Howard's dilemma" provides a surprisingly sharp and pertinent assessment of the Howard government. Much, if not all of it could have been written by Paul Keating.


Voters know the federal Government has not properly harnessed Australia's rising prosperity. If voter attention has been increasingly distracted away from the Howard Government towards an animated Opposition under Kevin Rudd, it has little to do with being bored at having the same faces in power for the past 11 years. It has more to do with the fact that the Government has taken its own 1996 campaign slogan, relaxed and comfortable, too literally for the good of the nation.

To the extent that a reform wish-list can be identified, it must include building a world-class education system and superior medical research and hospital facilities, better road, water and transport infrastructure, more efficient export port facilities and delivering high-speed broadband. Along the way, we must also address the ageing population and set immigration policy to provide more workers for an economy stretched to capacity. Further reform of the tax system is needed, with a cut to the top marginal tax rate to attract high-skilled workers and fine-tuning at the lower end, possibly negative taxation, to remove disincentives to work for the underemployed.

Against this list, after 11 years in office, the Howard Government's achievements leave a lot to be desired. Mr Howard's big achievement this term has been the introduction of Work Choices, which we support for having introduced workplace flexibility that has allowed unemployment to fall to a 32-year low without causing a wages breakout and associated inflationary pressures. But it was introduced in haste and without adequate public consultation following the Government's su[r]prise majority in the Senate. Mr Howard is paying the price now.

The other crowning glories of the Howard years include the introduction of a GST, which - again welcome- is by no means ground-breaking in terms of public sector management, particularly when the benefits have largely been squandered by state governments on higher public sector wages.

Apart from that, the Howard years are mostly characterised as having placed a different emphasis on cultural and social issues, many of which we also agree with, such as changes to the university sector, a return to basics in school education and the belated but poorly constructed intervention in Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory. As in Britain and Washington, the other big issue to have dominated the period of Mr Howard's prime ministership has been Australia's involvement in a protracted war in Iraq, which has been comprehensively mismanaged by the US.

Set against the micro-economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments during the 1980s and '90s, the Howard reform legacy is thin. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating can claim credit for the floating of the Australian dollar, opening up the banking sector, reducing tariffs, introducing the wages accord and compulsory superannuation and ending centralised wage bargaining. All were essential to modernising the Australian workplace and making Australian businesses internationally competitive. The great legacy of the Hawke and Keating years was the conditions it set for sustained productivity growth. Labor has pledged to refocus on productivity growth if it wins office.

Against this, there is little to indicate that Mr Howard and the Treasurer have used their time in office to set the country up for the decades ahead. The opportunities for reform have been many, but Mr Howard has chosen to preside over a high-taxing, big-spending and very centralised government. On infrastructure, a lack of federal leadership has allowed mismanagement by the states. Catch-up spending has come at a time when the economy is already stretched, adding to competition for labour and capital and putting pressure on inflation and interest rates.

On health, the commonwealth has failed to deal with the issues of duplication of services and shied away from tackling funding disputes with the states head on. This has left the Government making illogical, token gestures, such as the takeover of the Devonport hospital at the 11th hour.

Media reform is a good example of the Howard Government's timidity. After 11 years of procrastination, when it finally did act no-one wanted to own media anymore. It is the same story on telecommunications: after a decade spent privatising Telstra, the result is a political and policy schemozzle.

In essence, the Howard Government has succumbed to the trap outlined by Treasury Secretary Ken Henry. It has been content to consume the fruits of the present economic boom and take the luxury of the soft option. Within this option, Dr Henry said, lurks an intergenerational tragedy that would impose an unnecessary burden on all future generations.

Made worse by the long simmering leadership tensions between Mr Howard and Mr Costello, this inaction has also come at an immediate political cost. We now see Mr Howard struggling in the opinion polls not because of his age or because he has been in office for 11 years but because he appears to have little idea of what to do next. The electorate hasn't been listening because the Government hasn't said anything worth hearing. What is the compelling argument to vote for another term of the Howard Government? The big argument put by Mr Howard boils down to a fear of change.

Unlike Opposition Treasury spokesman Wayne Swan, we believe there is no sign of an end to Australia's new found prosperity because of the rise of China and India. We agree with BHP that this is a global trend with decades still to run. But Australia must act to capitalise on that good fortune. To date, despite a decade of rising demand for commodities, Australia still has not achieved any real increase in export volumes, just price. Mr Howard has been the architect of his own electoral misfortune. He has run a good government but the caution with which it has approached its task is coming home to roost. When the history is written about Australia's present golden era of economic prosperity, it is likely to focus on why so little was achieved.

This should not be seen as an endorsement by us of Labor. The Opposition Leader may not be able to deliver on reform either. It may be all talk but the opinion polls are showing that punters have picked up on the fact that he wants to have a go. We are merely saying that Mr Howard is paying a political price for his inaction. He has spoken loudly but done little. In this way, we believe his predicament is of his own making. He has presided over a golden era but not known what to do with it. Voters are bored with him for that reason.

29 August 2007

Fire bans in August? An overreaction?

The Country Fire Service has issued an unseasonal and hence surprising fire ban advice for tomorrow:


Issued at 5:05 pm on Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Thursday 30 August 2007 is forecast to be a day of extreme fire danger,
especially in bushland and forest areas, and the Country Fire Service has
imposed Total Fire Bans in the following districts:

West Coast
Eastern Eyre Peninsula
Lower Eyre Peninsula
Mount Lofty Ranges

For more information on restrictions, phone the CFS Hotline on 1300 362 361 or
go to http://www.cfs.org.au

Yes, the Bureau of Meteorology state forecast does predict high winds and high temperatures:


Issued at 4:20 pm on Wednesday, 29 August 2007
For tonight and Thursday.

Please do not use this forecast after 6 am Thursday.

A Gale Warning has been issued for all South Australian coasts.

Fine Wednesday evening. Warm to hot and dry at first on Thursday with northerly
winds increasing to strong to gale force with locally raised dust. A cooler,
strong and squally southwesterly change developing west of Ceduna during the
morning, then extending to remaining district during the afternoon and evening.
Isolated showers developing across the agricultural areas behind the change.
Winds moderating in the west Thursday evening. Fire Danger rising Very High to
Extreme in forest and bushland during Thursday.
But, repeat but, has anyone from the CFS or the BOM looked out the window and at the Adelaide Hills (in the Mount Lofty Ranges fire ban district), which are, as usual at this time of year, covered in green? The ABC News online story misrepresents the situation by including a photo of the CFS in action on dry grass.

Adelaide (today's max 20.5 deg) is considerably warmer than the Mount Lofty Ranges (today's max at Mt Lofty 14.2). Does the prospect of 28 in Adelaide, followed by a cool change and possible showers, justify a total fire ban?

In my experience fire bans in the Mt Lofty ranges are imposed when the Adelaide est max is 35 or more. Does this mean that 28 is the new 35? In my experience it's quite feasible to walk in the parks near Adelaide, eg Cleland and Morialta, on most days when the estimated max is in the high 20s, and in the morning or late afternoon of many days when the temperature exceeds 30.

The "weather bureau" spokesman quoted by the ABC acknowledges that this is a first:

Allan Beattie, from the weather bureau in Adelaide, says the conditions will be hazardous until a forecast change later in the day.

"One thing we probably haven't seen in all this before is a fire ban for the Mount Lofty Ranges but we have one for tomorrow," he said."The highest temperature recorded in Adelaide is 29 [for August], we're going for 28 tomorrow so we're within one degree of our extremes."

Hardly an unequivocal endorsement of the CFS action, methinks. Of course I hope that no fires start (or are started), but imposing a fire ban looks unnecessary.

Update 30 August 2130 CST

Well today certainly turned out to be hot, even hotter than forecast. Adelaide's maximum reached 30.4 degrees, an all time August record. It was windy (with strong gusts) and warm, but I've not heard any reports of fires, which is good especially given that the fire ban and the accompanying publicity must have tempted some local pyromaniacs to emerge from hibernation.

For a detailed analysis of today's weather see the estimable hillsrain website.

My comments yesterday weren't meant to play down the potential damage to agriculture, but to question the need for a fire ban in the Mt Lofty Ranges on a day when a cool change and rain were forecast. The 2135/9.35pm temperature is now 17.1 in Adelaide and 10.7 at Mt Lofty, and tomorrow's forecast is for a much cooler day, so we can be grateful that this spasm of heat was so short. We do need more rain though.

Further update 30 August 2200

It is now raining outside. I hope it continues, despite the unpromising forecast, for some time.

The changing face of Australia

On last night's 7.30 Report , Hugh Mackay, the veteran (by his own admission) social researcher was interviewed by Kerry O'Brien. The transcript, with links to an extended version, is here.

Mackay 's body and opinions have aged gracefully: "mellowed" isn't quite the right word, because while he admits to being optimistic about the future of our society he hasn't adopted a Panglossian view. Food for thought, especially for those who, like him and me, have seen many changes in our journey through life.

28 August 2007

Lunar eclipse

As I post the full moon in the eastern sky above where I live is in eclipse. Adelaide Now's story says: "The Earth's shadow will creep across the moon's surface tonight, slowly eclipsing it and turning it to shades of orange and red." When I looked just now (2030 CST) the moon was more burnt orange , or copper, than red, and darker than it had been an hour before.

Discovery Channel is showing the event live, with three Australian observatories (in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania) to choose from.

I must go outside and have another look.

Update 29 August

Adelaide Now has published a mixed bag of (mostly readers') pictures including this and this.

25 August 2007

More good arguments for anti-corruption commissions

An editorial in today's Australian "Opposing the obvious" makes its point trenchantly:

If the first sign a premier has been in office too long is a statement that independent oversight of the government is unnecessary, it is time for Labor MPs in South Australia to start thinking about a successor for Mike Rann. Last week, Mr Rann suggested South Australia does not need an independent corruption commission because in other states such agencies spend a lot of money on lawyers. At best, this unforced error means Mr Rann is so unconcerned by what voters think that he now says the first thing that comes into his head.

At worst, it demonstrates that he is comfortable in power and so convinced of the probity of his ministers and mandarins that he genuinely does not see the need for independent investigators, including lawyers whose job it is to ask politicians and public servants hard questions.

But whatever Mr Rann thinks, from the wretched regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland a generation ago to the recent influence-peddling of Brian Burke in Western Australia, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of well-resourced corruption commissions. Certainly such agencies are a pain in the neck for ministers who have no case to answer. In NSW a few years back, Craig Knowles was hauled before the Independent Commission Against Corruption as part of a complex inquiry taht took a great deal of time and cost him political capital before finding him innocent of any wrongdoing. His boss, premier Bob Carr, got into strife with ICAC for saying he thought his minister had received a rough go.

Set against such irritations are the achievements of corruption commissions around the country. ICAC and the similar agency that oversees the police help keep corruption in NSW under control. In 1987, the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland began the process that saw four state ministers go to prison and unmasked the police commissioner as a crook. Some 20 years later we have seen three ministers in Western Australia resign over their relationships with Mr Burke.

Perhaps Mr Rann can explain what it is about Adelaide that makes politicians and public servants so pure there is no need for a corruption commission there. And perhaps John Brumby, the new premier of Victoria, who agrees with Mr Rann, can do the same, although evidence of police corruption in his state will make it a tough task.

Unless they are game to claim all is pure on their patches, both men must provide a sensible answer to a simple question: if they will not establish anti-corruption agencies, why not?

22 August 2007

Bob Dylan

Last night I went to the Bob Dylan concert at the Entertainment Centre. The performance, which was excellent, is still resonating in my mind. I particularly recall "Lay, Lady, Lay" and his final offering, "Blowin' In The Wind", whose timeless words were set to a more contemporary arrangement (though still with harmonica interlude). He also sang some songs from Modern Times , his latest album, which I'd heard (and which I recommend), including "Thunder on the Mountain" and "Beyond The Horizon".

Bob and his backing group performed for about an hour and three-quarters, with only a brief break near the end. As is apparently the custom at his concerts, he allowed the music and lyrics to speak for themselves, which they are well able to do. The only variation was when, near the end, he introduced the band members.

Apart from its quality, the length of the performance attested to Bob's stamina. Though he swapped his guitar for keyboards after a few numbers he remained standing throughout. Not bad for someone who is older (not to mention much more talented) than me.

I've long admired Dylan, but until last night had never seen him in person. Although I was sitting a long way from the stage I did, with uncharacteristic foresight, take a pair of binoculars so I was able to zoom in on the action, close enough to pick out several details, eg looked like an Oscar statuette standing on a speaker.

21 August 2007

"Aspirational nationalism" or balderdash?

It's hardly worth mentioning, except for its curiosity and spin value, but Prime Minister Howard , or someone in his circle, has coined this phrase.

Its ostensible purpose is to summarise his vision for Australia in a nutshell.
The more likely effect is to draw attention to his propensity, never more marked than in recent times, to make policy on the run.

If he has a vision it is to keep himself in office.

14 August 2007

Sydney finding claims questioned

I can't say that I'm surprised, but the media, led by The Australian (see here and here), have questioned claims that the wreck of HMAS Sydney has been found:

David Mearns, who has recovered more than 50 ships - including the British battleship HMS Hood, sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in World War II - said it seemed highly improbable the wreck off Dirk Hartog Island was the Sydney.

"I would love for this to be the Sydney but in my professional opinion it's not believable," he said.

Mr Mearns said German logbooks showed the November 19, 1941, battle between the German raider SS Kormoran and the
Sydney took place 120 nautical miles west of the Gascoyne Coast, or 160 nautical miles southwest of the town of Carnarvon.

The wreck detected last week by amateur researcher Phil Shepherd and his mates - including master diver Ian Stiles, who filmed parts of the wreck with a grappling hook and an underwater camera - was just 20 nautical miles from Dirk Hartog and close to the coast.

The men would not elaborate on their find yesterday because of a confidentiality agreement with a media organisation, Mr Stiles's wife, Sharon, said.

A spokesman for Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said the navy would examine the wreck to determine if it was the Sydney.

Even the Fairfax media has had to back off its euphoric, and what now appears to be spurious, claim at the weekend that the sighting was almost certainly the Sydney:

The navy will work with the Western Australian Maritime Museum to try to verify claims that HMAS Sydney has been located off the West Australian coast. The move came after the sighting of a wreck which could be the vessel that sank on November 19, 1941, with 645 aboard. An investigation was necessary, a Defence Force spokesman said, before any "positive identification of the wreck" could be confirmed. Divers claimed last week that the remains of the vessel, sunk by enemy fire, had been found near Dirk Hartog Island."This is wonderful news," Mike McCarthy, the curator of maritime archeology at the West Australian Museum, said.

"The navy will probably send a survey ship with sonar capability to investigate the wreck, which is justified because of the huge interest this discovery has created," Dr McCarthy, who is advising the navy, said.

A spokesman for Bruce Billson, the minister assisting the Minister for Defence, said the Government was waiting for a report from the team that claims to have found the ship before committing a ship to the search."They have a lawful obligation to file this report, and once the navy has verification [it] can commit a survey ship, which would probably be a minehunter with sonar capability," the spokesman said "Until then it would be irresponsible of them to prematurely raise the expectations of relatives who have been living with this mystery for more than 60 years and want closure."

Tonight's 7.30 Report summed up the current state of play well in words, though some of the accompanying video footage was grossly inaccurate: many of the warships depicted bore little resemblance to the Sydney. Can't the ABC researchers do better than this? All they need to do is to consult some of the knowledgeable people who were interviewed on the program.

13 August 2007

Contrasting perspectives on contemporary Australia

From today's Crikey:

Frank Golding writes
: On Friday Christian Kerr concludes that "Things aren’t that bad out in voterland" because a subscriber told him: ING will pay him higher interest rate on his savings; the earnings of his super fund will be going up, he’s just got a tax cut, his new super-duper laptop is costing less than half the old one, his shares are way up as are his dividends, the value of his (un-mortgaged) apartment is skyrocketing and he is holidaying soon in Pt Douglas. The subscriber blames John Howard. My 20-year-old has no savings, no super, no tax cut, no laptop, no shares, no apartment and no holiday. He blames John Howard too. They both get one vote.

Kerry O'Brien spits dummy on air, then apologises

On tonight's 7.30 Report Kerry O'Brien didn't check that his microphone was switched off before launching into an intemperate dummy spit about the story he'd just introduced. He did, in a manner of speaking, apologise when he returned to camera. No doubt this will be edited out of the online version of the program (see link) but it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, the mainstream media make of the gaffe.

Update 14 August

Not surprisingly, the scene has turned up on YouTube

The Fairfax media hasn't, as far as I can tell, mentioned the story online (why not?) but The Australian printed Nicola Berkovic's story in its print edition, and posted a pretty much identical version on the News.com.au website (albeit in the "entertainment" section):

O'Brien was heard having a rant about mixed up auto-cues during a story by chief political correspondent Michael Brissenden. Earlier, O'Brien had stumbled while introducing the segment, which is possibly when he realised that changes he had made to the text did not appear in his auto-prompt.

"I don't know what's happened, but I changed my bloody links. I changed that link and I wrote it into the Canberra cue, and that's not the link I've written," O'Brien was heard to say, while on air.

No doubt O'Brien, who has worked as a journalist for more than 40 years, would have had more to say after he realised his displeasure was expressed on air. O'Brien later apologised for the "studio sound" leading into Brissenden's story.

O'Brien is known for his usually cool persona on camera. He has been a presenter on The 7.30 Report since 1995, after six years on the ABC's Lateline program.

News.com.au has also taken pity on Kerry and attempted to put his rant into perspective by providing a list of a dozen on air gaffes .

11 August 2007

HMAS Sydney search "almost certainly over"?

Today's Age print edition leads with a story "Back From The Deep" which claims "One of Australia's most tragic wartime mysteries has almost certainly been solved as divers claim to have found HMAS >Has it? The story appears on the paper's website and it has been mentioned on the Channel 7, SBS and ABC TV news tonight, though only Channels 7 and ABC TV showed the video footage which amateur divers claimed to have taken off the WA coast. You can see it on here.

Here's the story as it appears on the website. It is substantially the same (I've not checked it completely ) as the one in the print edition:

Paul Murray
August 11, 2007

THE 66-year search for the wreck of HMAS Sydney, on which 645 Australians lost their lives, is almost certainly over.

A group of West Australians using just a grappling hook and an underwater camera last weekend found what they are sure is the Sydney, which sank after a battle with the German raider Kormoran on November 19, 1941.

Video film of the discovery shows scenes of tangled wreckage over a vast expanse of deck, much longer than any other vessel known to have sunk in the area.

The search team believe a series of details clearly visible on their video — decking bolts, extensive radio aerials, steam tubes and signs of massive damage — all point to the Sydney.

The wreck is off Cape Inscription on the northern end of Dirk Hartog Island in about 150 metres of water.

Amateur researcher Phil Shepherd, who has been intrigued by the Sydney's fate since he saw a lifeboat from the Kormoran 61 years ago, said last night it was unlikely the wreck could be anything else.

"I've always wanted to find out where the souls of those sailors lay for all the people who have grieved over the years," Mr Shepherd said. "I've got a family member there too. This is a sacred site and a war grave — probably our most important war grave. We hope we can give the families some closure knowing where their people are and where they can place some flowers."

Mr Shepherd, who has been involved in other Sydney search groups, said despite the rudimentary nature of the vision, it threw up strong evidence supporting his contention.

"Sydney had a huge aerial system for its wireless telegraphy and we think we're seeing that on the video," he said. "There are bolts sticking out of the deck, lots of steam pipes and tangled wreckage. The bolts are important because we know the Sydney had timber decking that was tied down by the bolts.

"You would not expect that sort of damage from anything that had just sunk. It is inconsistent with it being anything else like a merchant ship.

"I knew the Sydney was flattened by the Kormoran by gunfire. She caught fire because of the wooden decking. We believe she took a torpedo and was down by the bow and yawing …

"I became more convinced when I saw all these halyards and what looked like aerial wires with insulators strewn over the debris, over railings. It looked like the mast had been shot down.

"All of this convinced me it wasn't an ordinary vessel. It didn't prove to me that it was a military vessel, but I asked myself: what else could it be if it's not the Sydney? The only other vessel it could be in that location was the Kormoran.

"If it was any other vessel than the Sydney or the Kormoran in that location, why hadn't it been reported as missing and looked at?"

Mr Shepherd said he later showed the video to another team member, diver Trevor Beaver, who had explored US naval wrecks in Truk Lagoon in the Pacific.

"He took one look at the video and he said: 'You've got it. It couldn't be anything else.' "

Mr Shepherd said about 15 years ago he noticed an anomaly on the bottom of the sea when he was fishing, but it was before the days of the global positioning system and he didn't know how to get back to it.

Early this year he was given a derivative location close to that spot by the son of a local fisherman who pulled up a copper bolt with a little bit of white timber attached to it about 12 years ago.

"From all of my research, with this new information, it became logically possible that this was the location," Mr Shepherd said.

He began working with his son Graham, master divers Ian Stiles and Trevor Beaver, Perth businessman Terry Crommelin and diving supplies agent Simon van Zeller to work out a way to investigate the site. They devised a method of getting a camera down to film the site. Last weekend the late fisherman's son agreed to take them to the spot.

"We put down a heavy grapple and we were on the spot nearly straight away and hooked up on something," Mr Shepherd said. "We put the camera down on a tether rope holding it on with U-shackles.

"When we got to the bottom we got pictures and within three minutes we spotted what looked like a spoon — which we now believe was a shovel — just laying in the sand. We were sitting there on the deck with a blanket over our heads so we could see the pictures on the screen and then this shape of what we thought was part of an aerial — now we think it's a railing — just came up out of the gloom.

"We were absolutely gobsmacked. And it just got better and better."

Ian Stiles, an oil and gas diver for 25 years, took GPS locations as the camera travelled along the deck of the wreck to the extent of available movement. He logged a length of 30 metres. The Sydney was 170 metres long.

Mr Stiles said one structure appeared to be a tripod. The Sydney had the ability to launch a Walrus aircraft which used a tripod structure.

Much as I'd like to see the Sydney's wreck located (and I've blogged about this several times ) I believe that the new claims draw a very long bow. For one thing the site identified by the purported finders is much closer to the mainland than has hitherto been thought feasible; for another it is in relatively shallow water (150m).

That said, I'll wait with considerable interest to see if these new claims are confirmed. Others, including former deputy PM Tim Fischer are also keeping their powder dry, as there have been several false alarms before, not to mention some conspiracy unusual theories about the ship's disappearance (see links to Fischer story for some of them).

On ABC TV News tonight (the story isn't yet on the ABC website) Minister of Defence Nelson, while welcoming the news, counselled caution about the ultimate outcome. Given his previous propensity to shoot from the hip this is a prudent thing to do.

10 August 2007

Venomous Australian creatures at large in NZ

New Zealanders inhabit a land which is considered to free from venomous creatures (especially snakes). Until now, that is...as today's NZ Herald reports:

Three Auckland girls were stung in a tree by venomous Australian caterpillars that have become widely established here.

It happened in February when the girls, aged around 10, were climbing a eucalyptus tree at their school in Avondale, today's New Zealand Medical Journal reports.

The hairy caterpillar, called the gum leaf skeletoniser, was first discovered in New Zealand in 1992 and is now firmly established throughout the Auckland region.

06 August 2007

Another Ghan collision

Once again the Ghan has been involved in an accident, this time at a private and IMO not well marked level crossing near Two Wells (about 40km north of Adelaide).

The pictures, which I took this afternoon, show the remains of the truck (amazingly the driver seems to have survived with relatively minor injuries), and temporary repairs being made to the leading locomotive.

The ABC reports that an investigation into the cause of the accident has begun. I'll be interested to see the outcome.

Update 7 August

Today's Australian has a detailed report of the event with a couple of v good pictures (which don't appear online). An extract (with some points highlighted):

Yesterday's accident happened on a straight stretch of track that should have made the oncoming express, travelling at an average speed of 80km/h, visible for several kilometres as it approached the level crossing.

This was marked with stop signs and an alert to drivers to look for trains, but no warning lights or boomgates.

But witnesses to the crash said it was possible the local truck driver's view of the crossing had been obscured by trees and vegetation overgrowing its northern approach.

After turning right off the main road running parallel to the tracks, on to a dirt access road crossing them, the truck was broadsided by the train when partly across the line.

The force of the impact ripped the driver's cabin from the chassis and sent liquid from its ruptured tank showering 50m into the air.

"We felt the ground shake," said train spotter Matthew Stewart, who was preparing to video The Ghan passing a northbound freight train at the time of the accident.

"It was just like a tremendous bang ... like a big bag of water exploding.

"I'm surprised that the truck driver is alive. If the train had been going faster it could have had worse consequences."

Mr Stewart said it was "unacceptable" for thick growth to be so close to the crossing.

"There is not enough clearance," he said. "The truck just went straight across. He didn't even give way, he just went straight though."

The Australian Road Track Corporation, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Transport SA, and South Australian police will investigate the crash.

Police superintendent Ferdi Pit said it was difficult to believe no one was killed in the accident.

"If you look at the truck, it's completely destroyed," he said. "It is a miracle that the driver of that truck is not dead."

The driver, a member of the local Country Fire Service, remained conscious and talking as fellow volunteers pulled him from the wreckage.

Ray Bryant, group officer of the Light CFS, said the man had a family with three teenage children and was well known in the community.

"He's an average sort of a bloke, trying to make a buck," Mr Bryant said. "This is a busy track, so if they're locals they should know that trains are going up and down all the time."

This photo from the ABC website shows how far the septic tank carried on the truck was flung by the impact, apparently losing its contents in the process (the Ghan hits the sh*t?).

03 August 2007

Two great directors die

Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, two of world cinema's most renowned directors have died within a day of each other.

I'm more familiar with Bergman's works, not all of which IMO are as unremittingly lugubrious as many people believe. While we may recall the gloom of The Seventh Seal, occasional shafts of light ease the tension of the chess game; other films such as Fanny and Alexander, Smiles of A Summer Night and Wild Strawberries in their different ways are more life affirming.

I've not seen, or don't remember seeing, many of Antonioni's films, but a couple of years ago I saw Blow Up again. Even allowing for the 1960s ambience this is a memorable film, which retains much of its freshness.

For a much more incisive appreciation of the pair than I'm able to provide see this by David Tiley at Barista. Apart from its own considerable merits it includes some good links.